HAL, the petulant, malfunctioning computer of"2001: A Space Odyssey,"is about to have a birthday. But he won't be around to celebrate it.
"We haven't made him yet," said Roy Campbell, a computer science professor at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We haven't caught up with the film."
According to the landmark 1968 movie, HAL was born Downstate this coming Sunday. The film, which received wildly mixed reviews on its release, has become a fixture of popular culture, and HAL remains the cinema`s most indelible symbol of the potential evils of technology.
On a wide screen populated by bland bureaucrats, stoic astronauts and a couple of dozen prehistoric ape-people, HAL stands out as the film`s most colorful creation. On board a mission to Jupiter, the supercomputer controls every aspect of the flight, from monitoring the electronic systems to adjusting an astronaut's head rest.
He speaks proudly of his error-free record, but when he mistakenly declares a piece of equipment to be faulty, the two working astronauts (three others are frozen in suspended animation) discuss disconnecting him. HAL reads their lips and kills four of the five crew members before the survivor can lobotomize him.
As his higher brain functions dissolve and his speech becomes gruesomely slow, HAL states, "I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on the 12th of January, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langly, and he taught me to sing a song ... "
And then comes the computer`s loopy, batteries-running-down version of
"Daisy Bell," which growls to a halt as HAL incongruously imagines "a bicycle built for twoooooo."
Director Stanley Kubrick, a renowned recluse, would only comment through a film studio spokesman: "He accepts the well wishes for HAL's birthday."
But science-fiction writerArthur C. Clarke, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel," said he sees HAL's birthday as a milestone.
"HAL was the first computer to become a famous personality and become part of public mythology," the ailing, 74-year-old writer said from his home in Sri Lanka. "So that is important."
The Urbana-HAL connection begins in different places, depending on the storyteller.
"HAL has been around the university as a term since the '50s," said Linda Scott, comptroller of HAL Communications Corp., an Urbana-based communications-systems company that occasionally gets phone calls from people who "want to talk to HAL."
Scott said computer technicians used to apply the nickname to their own homemade machines. "HAL is simply the three letters that precede IBM. It's been jargon around the university probably since IBM became a big name in computers."
Clarke rejects that story as his source.
"Originally, HAL was ATHENA," he said. "We had decided to have a woman's voice. But then, I think it was Stanley probably who changed it to HAL. One legend that I've been trying to stamp out is that HAL was derived from IBM, which is, of course, utter nonsense.
"As far as I know, Stanley and I cooked up the name HAL, and if we'd noticed any resemblance to IBM, we would have changed it because IBM was very helpful to us. Soon after the film came out, somebody pointed out this resemblance, and this has become part of the mythology. It's pure coincidence."
As for HAL's birthplace, "The reason I chose to put him at the University of Illinois-Urbana was that my old math professor was a professor there, George McVittie," Clarke said. "He had been my math professor at King's College, London, and he became professor of astronomy at Urbana, and that was a tribute to him."
Clarke added that the rendition of "Daisy" was a tip of the cap to his friend John Pierce, who had given him a tour of Bell Labs and demonstrated a computer that sang that song. "That was an in joke, you see," Clarke said.
Pierce, now a visiting emeritus music professor at Stanford University, chuckled at the recollection. "I knew how 'Daisy' got in as soon as I heard it in the film."
"Mr. Langly," HAL's alleged instructor, was not, however, another inside reference but "just a name we pulled out of a hat," Clarke said.
Clarke's literary followers may contend that HAL`s birthday celebration is premature. In the book version of "2001," which Clarke wrote based on the screenplay, HAL reports to having been activated five years later.
"In the novel, it's 1997, which makes much more sense, of course," said Clarke, who has written two "2001" sequels. "I have no idea how that happened. What was HAL doing in the nine years before the film opens?"
But HAL probably wouldn't be ready for his later birthday either.